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Orson Welles - Mercury Theater - 1938 recordings

by pamstv

Published 1938, 1988


19 Mercury Theater's radio programmes - 17 from 1938 (July-November) and 2 from 1946

BONUS: 1988 Special Programme - Mercury Theater Remembered with appearences and voices of those who worked in those programmes and still remember how Welles used to work.

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- In 1937, Welles and the Mercury company earned a reputation for their inventive adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in contemporary Fascist Italy. They moved on to productions of The Shoemaker's Holiday, Heartbreak House, Too Much Johnson and Danton's Death in 1938. In 1939 Five Kings was produced along with The Green Goddess. The last theatrical production of the company was Native Son in 1941.
[edit] Radio

Welles had already worked extensively in radio drama, playing the title character in The Shadow for a year and directing a seven-part adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, both for the Mutual Broadcasting System. In 1938, he was offered a chance to direct his own weekly, hour-long radio series, initially promoted as First Person Singular. However, this title was never announced on the air. Radio Guide initially mentioned the series' debut as Mercury Theatre before later listing it as The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Welles insisted his Mercury company — actors and crew — be involved in the radio series. This was an unprecedented and expensive request, especially for one so young as Welles. Most episodes dramatized works of classic and contemporary literature. It remains perhaps the most highly regarded radio drama anthology series ever broadcast, most likely due to the creativity of Orson Welles.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an hour-long dramatic radio program which began in the summer of 1938 on the CBS radio network. Paul Holler, writing in Critique, described the program's origin:

Radio, with its power to excite the imagination and actually involve the audience in the creative process, had huge potential as a medium for serious drama. It seemed inevitable that the day would come when this medium, which had made Orson Welles a household name across the country, would become a part of his serious theater ambitions. That day came in 1938.

It was in that year that CBS, remembering Welles' work on Les Misérables the year before, approached him and Houseman about a series of radio dramas for its summer schedule. The idea was conceived as a series of narratives under the title First Person Singular. But the series would be best remembered by the name it assumed with its second production, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

As with Les Misérables the previous year, Welles was given complete creative control by CBS over the new series. The choices he made in developing the series were informed by what he had learned in previous years in other radio dramas. Chief among those choices was to create dramas specifically for the radio and not to simply adapt dramas in production at the Mercury Theatre for broadcast. In close collaboration with John Houseman and other writers, Welles wrote, directed and performed in the productions. The end result was a series of dramas based on literary, rather than dramatic, works. There were exceptions, most notably Our Town by Welles' early mentor Thornton Wilder. But it was clear to Welles and Houseman that the medium of radio suited the telling of a story far better than the dramatization of it. As a result, some of the most memorable Mercury Theatre on the Air productions were adaptations of great novels. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heart of Darkness and other major literary works were offered to radio audiences during the Mercury Theatre on the Air's run. [1]

Houseman wrote the early scripts for the series, turning the job over to Howard Koch at the beginning of October. Music for the program was conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Their first radio production was Bram Stoker's Dracula, with Welles playing both Count Dracula and Doctor Seward. Other adaptations included Treasure Island, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Man Who Was Thursday and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Originally scheduled for nine weeks, the network extended the run into the autumn, moving the show from its Monday night slot, where it was the summer substitute for the Lux Radio Theater, to a Sunday night slot opposite Edgar Bergen's popular variety show.

The early dramas in the series were praised by critics, but ratings were low. A single broadcast changed the program's ratings: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Possibly thousands of listeners thought Martians were in fact invading the earth, due to the faux-news quality of most of the broadcast. Significant publicity was generated, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air quickly became one of radio's top-rated shows.

The War of the Worlds notoriety had a welcome side effect of netting the show the sponsorship of Campbell's Soup, guaranteeing its survival for a period, and beginning on December 9, 1938, the show was retitled The Campbell Playhouse. The company moved to Hollywood for their second season, and continued briefly after Welles' final performance in March 1940. Welles revived the Mercury Theatre title for a short series in the summer of 1946.

Welles used the banner "Mercury Productions" on many of his films, and several of the actors from his Mercury Theatre Company appeared in them, notably in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Macbeth.
[edit] Episodes
# Date Title
1 Jul 11, 1938 Dracula
2 Jul 18, 1938 Treasure Island
3 Jul 25, 1938 A Tale of Two Cities
4 Aug 01, 1938 The Thirty Nine Steps
5 Aug 08, 1938 3 short stories: "I'm a Fool", "Open Window", "My Little Boy"
6 Aug 15, 1938 Abraham Lincoln
7 Aug 22, 1938 The Affairs of Anatole
8 Aug 29, 1938 The Count of Monte Cristo
9 Sep 05, 1938 The Man Who Was Thursday
10 Sep 11, 1938 Julius Caesar
11 Sep 18, 1938 Jane Eyre (possibly lost)
12 Sep 25, 1938 Immortal Sherlock Holmes
13 Oct 02, 1938 Oliver Twist (possibly lost)
14 Oct 09, 1938 Hell On Ice
15 Oct 16, 1938 Seventeen
16 Oct 23, 1938 Around the World in Eighty Days
17 Oct 30, 1938 The War of the Worlds
18 Nov 06, 1938 2 stories: Heart of Darkness, Life with Father
19 Nov 13, 1938 Passenger To Bali
20 Nov 20, 1938 The Pickwick Papers
21 Nov 27, 1938 Clarence (possibly lost)
22 Dec 04, 1938 The Bridge of San Luis Rey (possibly lost)
23 Jun 21, 1946 The Hitch-Hiker
24 Jul 12, 1946 The Search for Henry Le Ferre


Reviews

Reviewer: person66 - - July 21, 2013
Subject: 3 short stories
I noticed that 3 short stories was missing from the list. I found a copy here: http://www.mercurytheatre.info/
It would be nice if you could add it as well. Thanks.
Reviewer: radiophoto - - October 30, 2012
Subject: The Hitch-Hiker
This show originated as an episode of "Suspense" and can be found on one of those pages here at the archive.
Reviewer: RickSavant - - June 19, 2012
Subject: 1941
Does anyone know where one can find the original 1941 version of The Hitch-Hiker by Mr Welles? Thank you...
Reviewer: Jebu - - November 4, 2011
Subject: also of note
If you know anything at all of Welles and radio then you don't need me to tell you these broadcasts are entertaining; mostly I wanted to also say that Studio1 (the TV version) did an episode where they re-created what it might have been like for listeners and the people in the studio the night of 10-30-38 when MT did War of the Worlds. A quick search of Archive should produce the Studio1 episode--I forget the exact title. Also, if you like Mercury Theater/Campbell Playhouse then you might also try NBC University, Radio City Playhouse,and Studio1 radio shows.
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